Mississippi Noir ed. by Tom Franklin

Collected noir stories firmly grounded in Mississippi atmosphere offer a concise view of the genre’s possibilities.

mississippi noir

Akashic Books’ noir series travels to Mississippi, with Tom Franklin editing this collection of short stories by both established and newly published authors. Mississippi Noir includes 16 tales, symmetrically organized in four sections of four: “Conquest & Revenge,” “Wayward Youth,” “Bloodlines” and “Skipping Town.” The thematic groupings are loose, and the contents work equally well in any order, picked up and put down as the reader chooses.

These chilling stories vary in length, from 20-some pages down to just a few, and though they cover a range of subjects and settings in time, they consistently embody the ideal of noir writing with a strong sense of place. Bullets, blood, abuse and longing appear frequently, with some sex scenes thrown in as well. Ace Atkins writes of desperate teens running out of options; Megan Abbott, in a scintillating contribution, views from both sides a romance gone tragically wrong; Chris Offutt’s understated story stars a waitress drifting from town to town; and Dominiqua Dickey’s first published story involves an interracial romance in 1936. Within all of the pieces, the authors pay special attention to local details: natural beauty, economic depression, college culture, the longing to escape a small town or the yearning for a wider world.

These stories are dark by definition, and marked by unhappiness: as one narrator sighs, “I wanted sleep to pass without actually having to sleep. I wanted the future.” But an appreciation for the surroundings is always evident; these pages drip with Mississippi humidity. Fans of classic noir will be pleased and rooted in this redolent setting.

This review originally ran in the August 9, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 bullets.

Among the Wicked by Linda Castillo

A gutsy police chief goes undercover in Amish country, reentering a life she thought she’d left behind.

among the wicked

Linda Castillo’s Among the Wicked continues the serial adventures of a likable detective with an unusual background. Kate Burkholder is chief of police in Painters Mill, Ohio, a community more than half Amish. Her relationship with that faith, which she left as a teen, both pervades and complicates her work. She speaks Pennsylvania Dutch and understands the culture, but many resent her desertion. When a young girl dies under suspicious circumstances in the particularly insular Amish community of Roaring Springs, N.Y., Kate is the obvious choice to go in undercover. Her boyfriend, also a cop, has misgivings, but as her fans know, Kate won’t step down from a challenge–or a chance to help.

To enter this secretive society, which is led by a powerful, charismatic and possibly dangerous man, Kate must assume an identity that closely resembles one she might have lived. She poses as a widow, making new friends as well as new enemies. As she nears the frightening truth of Roaring Springs, Kate’s experience among the Amish drives her to reconsider her decisions regarding the faith.

Romantic developments in Kate’s personal life sweetly offset the disturbing events in this engrossing novel. Castillo’s skills are broad. Despite its deceptively quiet setting in Amish country, Among the Wicked is a high-speed, adrenaline-filled case of terror and intrigue: fast-paced and plot-driven, but with nuanced characters and an eye for detail where many thrillers slack off. This gritty mystery will equally satisfy fans of the Kate Burkholder series and first-time readers.

This review originally ran in the July 19, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 8 stitches.

White Bone by Ridley Pearson

A prolific author of action/suspense novels turns his skills to the distressing problem of elephant poaching in Kenya.

white bone

Ridley Pearson is known for fast-paced, plot-driven series for adults as well as for children. White Bone is the fourth novel in his Risk Agent series (after The Red Room), starring John Knox and Grace Chu, whose relationship undergoes significant change in this installment.

Knox is an importer/exporter of international arts and crafts, a career that provides him good cover for his clandestine work with Rutherford Risk, an international security firm that specializes in hostage extractions. Grace Chu is a forensic accountant and hacker, and a colleague at Rutherford Risk. As White Bone opens, Knox has received a troubling text message from Grace, just before she goes radio silent. Troubled, he follows her into the field.

Grace was sent into Kenya to track a stolen shipment of donated measles vaccines. The case quickly expands to involve the widespread criminal practice of poaching elephants for their tusks and rhinoceroses for their horns, and possibly the funding of terrorism. Corruption is standard operating procedure in Kenya, so Knox must beware of governmental agents and the police as well as the criminals he is tracking. When he arrives in Nairobi, Grace has been missing for days: he fears her cover has been blown.

Pearson’s plot is complex, watertight and humming with tension. The finest details are realistic and disturbing, and often require at least a moderately strong stomach, as when Grace, stranded alone in the bush, suppresses her usual hygiene habits in favor of survival practices gleaned from a Maasai guide. While the bulk of the story follows Knox, Grace appears both directly and in others’ narratives, posing a character development challenge that Pearson handles deftly. A large cast also includes a disillusioned British journalist, a Somali poacher, a Kenyan vigilante/folk hero, a helpful police officer, an activist lawyer and a resourceful Kenyan boy insistent upon becoming Knox’s right-hand man. Knox follows disparate threads and threats; Grace defends herself against jackals, lions and organized criminals; and the novel’s pace races as her situation worsens.

White Bone is richly detailed and filled with intrigue that encompasses terrorism, corruption and lingering colonial strains. Its characters are nothing if not passionate, and these passions include the author’s obvious concern for the central problem of elephant poaching. Pearson’s writing is informative and allows his muscular story to take center stage. Series fans will remain committed, and new readers will be drawn in, with no background knowledge necessary to follow this action-packed novel combining the thriller, adventure and mystery genres.

This review originally ran in the June 24, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 6 interior struggles.

Personal by Lee Child (audio)

personalWhat else can I say about Reacher? In some ways, my review of this book is going to say “this is like all the other Reacher books,” but I mean that in the best possible way. He is still a whiz, a he-man, a polymath expert – although I do like the odd bit where he is lacking. For example, we’ve heard before that he’s not a very good driver: it’s not a skill he had much time to develop in his Army-based life. I also found it refreshing that in this installment (minor spoiler here) he does not sleep with any of the beautiful women. I mean, I enjoy those scenes; but it’s more realistic for him to bat less than 1.000, don’t you think?

Briefly: in Personal, Reacher is tracked down by an Army contact to whom he owes a favor. There has been an assassination attempt against the French president, and all the major world powers are pitching in to help solve the crime, because they fear for their own leaders’ safety at an upcoming G8 meeting. The shot was taken so accurately from such a distance that only a few snipers in the world could have done it, making the list of suspects very short. Reacher resists the conclusion, but it does seem likely that an American took the shot – specifically, a man Reacher sent away to prison for 15 years, just 16 years ago. He is paired up with a young woman from the State Department (…or is she?) to investigate, and travels from Seattle to North Carolina to Arkansas to Paris and London, etc. It is, typically, an exciting and blood-splattered storyline, and I loved every minute of it.

I’m not saying much new here – if you know and love Reacher, you’ll be pleased by Personal, another chapter in the longer story and not at all Lee Child’s weakest. Next!

Rating: 7 pills.

The Treacherous Net by Helene Tursten

Detective Inspector Huss works to protect a Swedish city beset by multiple violent crimes.

treacherous net

The Treacherous Net is the eighth book in Helene Tursten’s series starring Detective Inspector Irene Huss, who continues to be challenged by upheaval in her workplace and her personal life.

In the city of Göteborg, Sweden, Huss is frustrated with the new female boss of her Violent Crimes Unit, who uses her sex appeal to manage the men in her department; she has no use for Huss, the only other woman. Huss has lost her longtime partner, now the boss’s deputy, and the unit is short-staffed and overextended by an unusually high crime rate. Gang-related murders are up, a mummified corpse has been found bricked into a chimney during demolition of a burned-out building, and two teenaged girls have been raped and murdered. One was from an affluent family who promptly reported her missing; the other had scarcely been missed. Meanwhile, Huss worries over her supportive but stressed and overworked husband, her aging mother and her young adult daughters, now out on their own. A new addition to her work team will ease some of the load–and present new challenges.

Huss is a tough, committed investigator and a loving family woman, and her shifting alliances present a twist on the standard police drama. Several of the actors involved with the crimes in question are well-developed characters as well. But The Treacherous Net is most accomplished in its plot, with several threads exploring history, long-standing social stigmas and the power of the Internet. This fast-paced, gritty thriller offers both a dark story and a striking hero.

This review originally ran in the January 5, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 cups of coffee.

Maximum Shelf: Breaking Wild by Diane Les Becquets

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on December 9, 2015.

breaking wildBreaking Wild is the first adult novel by Diane Les Becquets, author of highly praised young adult novels including Season of Ice and The Stones of Mourning Creek. Carefully crafted characters and measured pacing define this tale of two women’s parallel personal journeys in the wilderness of northwestern Colorado.

Amy Raye Latour is a wife and mother, an accomplished outdoorswoman and a strong personality. She is on a camping and hunting trip with two male friends. The men have brought down elk with rifles, but Amy Raye hunts with a compound bow; she needs to get away from her companions to find the stillness and quiet required to get close enough to her prey. So she sneaks away from camp on their last morning, with only a light pack. When she doesn’t show up again that night, her friends call local authorities.

Pru Hathaway lives in the nearby town of Rio Mesa with her teenaged son, Joseph, and her dog, Kona. Pru is an archeological law enforcement ranger with the Bureau of Land Management; Kona is certified for search-and-rescue, including avalanche conditions. The sheriff, Colm McCormac, is a friend; when he gets the call about Amy Raye, he turns to Pru.

The personalities of the two women shape the novel: they are both more complicated than they seem on first meeting, and while they are very different, both have concealed and storied pasts. One of Les Becquets’s triumphs is the tantalizingly paced release of new information: about Pru’s personal history, about Amy Raye’s troubles and the tangled web of her life, any strand of which may be implicated in her disappearance. Similarly meticulous is the build-up to Pru and Amy Raye’s expected meeting. This is the story of a chase: Pru and Kona pursue Amy Raye through the backwoods, tracking her movements through drifting snow and rugged terrain, hoping to find her before she succumbs to a mountain lion or the harsh winter conditions. As one party makes a move, the other makes a corresponding move, and the pressure increases. Breaking Wild is not only a masterpiece of characterization, but a feat of taut anticipation and suspense.

Somewhat relieving this tension are flashback interludes to Pru’s and Amy Raye’s respective histories, and the personal dramas of the present timeline. Pru’s son, Joseph, although not entirely untroubled, is a sweet young man; he wonders if Pru and the sheriff–himself an intriguing minor character–should date. Amy Raye’s marriage is not without its cracks, a situation perhaps symbolized by the description of her hunting in the early pages: her husband prefers to shoot with a camera, and has asked her not to keep guns in the house. Thus she uses the compound bow instead, and it is this choice that causes her to leave camp alone in the first place.

Three sections–entitled “Bear,” “Cougar” and “Deer”–further shape the book; chapters within those sections alternate between Pru’s first-person perspective and a third-person view of Amy Raye’s experiences. This format is telling. The natural landscape of northwestern Colorado is a pivotal feature, the backdrop that sets the stakes for a spectacle of life and death, informing every detail, every decision made. Both Pru and Amy Raye repeatedly note the temperature and humidity level, the wind strength and direction, in judging where, when and if to travel. When Pru first tells Kona to “go find,” on page 36 of more than 300, the reader knows that Amy Raye will not be so easily located. From then on, animal life and nature’s rhythms are increasingly crucial to Amy Raye’s subsistence. Is she hunting, or being hunted? She has gone into the wild seeking something undefined: “In that moment she felt everything–life, death, the tangy sweet smell of pine, the freshness of the rain. It was the immensity of those feelings that drove her mad at times.”

While the niceties of backwoods survival are fully developed, the drama of the natural world is less central to the story than the human dramas. The travels of Amy Raye and Pru give them room to grow, and to ask and answer questions of how to love; what a healthy relationship looks like; the nature of addiction; and the meaning and forms of family and community. Indeed, part of what Amy Raye has gone into the woods to find is a connection to her past; Pru found solace in the outdoors when she suffered a personal tragedy. So the two threads of the story–family and community, natural wilderness–intertwine, just as the lives of two women do.

Les Becquets portrays a credible and compelling cast of characters, especially the two strong women at its center. Breaking Wild is a rare novel in its mastery of both plot and character, with deliberate rhythm, thrilling suspense and a striking backdrop. Its breathless momentum carries through to a dramatic conclusion.

Rating: 7 arrows.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Les Becquets.

book beginnings on Friday: The Magician by E. J. Stauffer

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


This weekend’s reading is a shortish thriller starring a retired assassin.

Ben Knight could have been any man in his early thirties, of average height and weight and with no outstanding features. If you were to meet him, you would most likely be unable to describe him an hour later. As he walked to the bar, he casually ran over a scenario in his mind that seemed promising at first but was not very practical.

There are a few recognizable patterns here: the nondescript and forgettable man, who then walks into a bar… but there is promise within those standards. Stay tuned.


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